You don’t need no credit card to ride this train… just saying…
Back to the Future is about change, about fate and destiny and the possibility of a second chance. Those sentiments may smack of mawkish wish-fulfilment, and Robert Zemeckis’ cultural phenomenon is nothing if not idealistic, but there are ways to promote such romanticism without descending into the sickly slush of blueprint Hollywood, and in December of 1985 Back to the Future showed us just how creative Hollywood could be with a nostalgia piece that played with the generation gap, providing fun-filled relatability for the whole family.
Like anything fresh and inventive and ultimately landmark, it wasn’t easy convincing studios that what Zemeckis had in his possession was commercial gold. A draft of the screenplay had been passed around as early as 1981, and following the commercial bomb that was Used Cars, Zemeckis’ “nice, sweet story” was repeatedly rejected in an era when raunchy, frat-based comedies reigned supreme. Luckily, a rather prominent director with a knack for producing some of the period’s most memorable movies had a very different opinion. “It was a very unusual story,” Steven Spielberg would explain. “And yet it was based on a lot of old fashioned principles: of family, coming of age, getting your first car. All the dreams and desires you have for your own life — the dreams and desires your parents might have had but didn’t succeed in realising. And it was about the generation gap, and it was about the major disconnect between our generation and our own parents’ generation.”
For many kids of the 1980s, Back to the Future is the ultimate nostalgia trip. One of many Spielberg-produced wonders that came to define the decade, it is buoyed by the same adventurous spirit, with a lovably roguish protagonist who skids from shot-to-shot as he rides the inspirational wave of Alan Silvestri’s triumphant score. Michael J. Fox was a revelation as the movie’s spunky protagonist, a guitar-playing, skateboard-riding everyboy who made fools out of bullies with a slick, yet fallible insouciance that every kid dreamed of possessing, and in scientist doctor Emmett Brown he had a ticket to horizons often imagined but never experienced. Time travel ranks up there with the ultimate human fantasies. Who hasn’t pondered travelling back in time to correct something or skipping a few days forward to find out next week’s lottery numbers? To have that kind of control throws up endless possibilities, but it’s with the idea of losing control that the fun really begins.
The main premise for Back to the Future was developed after writer Bob Gale found his father’s high school yearbook, only to discover that he had in fact been president of his graduating class. Gale, who had attended the same high school a generation down the line, had been struck by how different they were as students, and wondered whether he and his father would have gotten along were they somehow part of the same era. In the movie, Marty and George are polar opposites. They are also products of very different cultures, both existing on each side of the Civil Rights Movement and a period of vast social change. What makes the movie so special is that we are able to participate as an audience, foreshadowing every last quirky facet as the disapproving ’50s threaten to swallow our protagonist’s whole existence. We are given the pieces of a puzzle, not just in terms of events, but through altered familial perceptions as Marty’s observations reveal a very different history from the one he had previously imagined. Central to this is young hellcat and future mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), who goes some way to proving that parents can be hypocrites too.
The first variation of 1985 reveals a McFly household of perennial underachievers. Marty’s mother is an alcoholic, his father a mousy nerd who lives in the shadow of his own failure and suppressed ambitions. On the greener side of the suburban fence is Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), a colossal oppressor who treats George like they’re still in high school. High school, especially in the United States, is an institution weaned on competition, a place where jocks and prom queens reign supreme, where a child’s popularity can determine the pathway to the rest of their lives. Okay, so it’s not always so black and white, and there’s a certain truth to the sentiment that intelligence wins out in the end, but bullies often remain bullies; they simply carry their attitudes into the real world. It’s a scary thought for a child, one that makes us root for Marty as if we were in his very shoes (which were also very cool by the way), and immediately he seems like the anomaly caught in a lifelong odyssey — an ambitious, creative soul with a beautiful sweetheart and a bright future ahead of him. Ultimately, it is up to him to break the McFly curse, and break the curse he will, but not in a way he ever could have imagined.
Marty – What, you smoke too?
Lorraine – Marty, you’re beginning to sound like my mother.
In many ways, Marty’s parents are like all parents, and you wonder if they were ever teenagers. In present day Hill Valley, Marty’s mother, Lorraine, is forever championing the virtues of her generation, a time when girls had standards and would never dream of making sexual advances like those unscrupulous harlots of the 80s, but when Marty runs into her younger incarnation he finds out first-hand just how little he knows about her past beyond her parental facade. George too, a timid loner who seems to have stumbled onto his marriage by pure happenstance, was not the pitiful choirboy his son presumes but a peeping Tom who was struck down by Lorraine’s father’s car; not by fate as the two would have their son believe, but due to a seedy pastime that threatens to destroy the McFly family history. There is also a younger, dumber, more ignorant Biff to contend with, a numbskull with busy fingers who takes what he wants through sheer brute force, and that includes the object of his desire, Lorraine.
What is truly astonishing about Back to the Future are the multi-faceted performances of an ensemble cast of mostly rookie actors. With an average age of 23, our youthful troupe are tasked with playing different variations of the same characters across different generations, a concept explored even further in the movie’s sequels, and every one of them achieves those variations with an astonishing degree of maturity. Whether it’s a stammering George McFly (Crispin Glover) or a gloomy, vodka-soaked Lorraine, each portrayal is as colourful and as stand-out as the next. Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff Tannen gives us so many variations of the pigheaded bully that it is hard to recall such a memorable and endearing onscreen ignoramus in a genre that is positively teeming with them.
Biff is perhaps the truest example of fate in the entire movie. His relentless scourge is as star-crossed to the McFly clan as Romeo is to Juliet. So ingrained is his influence that Marty and Doc are forced to relive slight variations of the same set-pieces, the majority of them ending with a big, nasty dose of manure, and if you didn’t know already, Biff hates manure. Whether he’s uttering the ominous ‘McFly!’, attempting to get fresh with the family matriarch or ruling the roost like Donald Trump on steroids, Tannen, whatever his age, form or generation, is an omnipotent presence in Marty’s family history, preordained as the inevitable force who will make or break their entire existence. Even his relatives, the bionic implant-sporting Griff and the Eastwood-swallowing Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, get in on the action. It seems like they can’t turn a corner without butting into a McFly.
Holding it all together is the Doc, a zany inventor who struggles to maintain pragmatism and logic in an environment completely devoid of it. Christopher Lloyd is the heartbeat of the entire movie, giving a career high physical performance and delivering a plethora of iconic lines that are woven into the very fabric of our culture. With his frazzled appearance and wild-eyed revelations he is the movie’s moral compass, his co-dependent relationship with Marty providing its emotional core as they race blindly towards one of many possible fates. Everything altered in the past will have a consequence in the future, a wonderful concept that plunges us into an ethical soup of uncertainty that never lets up. Their ultimate destination may lack clarity, but we cling to their coattails with the zest and zeal of children strapped to a roller coaster, one with so many twists and timescale loops we are reduced to wide-eyed passengers with no option but to just let go.
Biff Tannen – Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here!
The movie’s plot, though tightly knit and clearly delivered, depends on so many variables that the possibilities seem endless. Time travel has never been the most graspable concept, much like anything beyond the realms of mortal comprehension, but as a plot device it is pure gold, and never has it been handled with such loving care and unbridled exhilaration. The screenplay was devised using what is known as the index card method, whereby index cards are pinned to a bulletin board, each idea triggering another plot or character development, a process that led to iconic moments such as Marty’s inventing of the skateboard. But as fun as all of this is for the viewer, it was excruciating to develop; a fun born out of mental strife and emotional hardship. As Zemeckis would later lament, “During a screenplay like Back to the Future, it was just an immense amount of very hard, backbreaking work. I mean, there was nothing really fun about writing the screenplay. It was really hard.”
This is unsurprising considering the multitude of plot developments, backtracking and a storytelling map that explores all kinds of parallels and multiplicities, all of them delivered at a breathless pace that never sacrifices entertainment. Of course, if you analyse the movie’s events with any seriousness the whole thing falls apart. After George and Lorraine finally get together, it is Marty they have to thank for their union, to the extent that they even name their first child after him. When that child grows up to look exactly like their time-travelling hero, you would think one of them would notice the similarities. When Marty travels back to the future to warn Doc of his impending death at the hands of plutonium-smuggling terrorists, there are two versions of Marty running around Hill Valley at the same time, which suggests that their loop is endless.
Marvin Berry – [on the phone, as Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode”] Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this! [holds the receiver out]
The movie refuses to treat this as a hindrance. In fact, it thrives on such inconsistencies, inviting you to strap yourself in and revel in the breakneck implausibility. The basic plot sends Marty back in time to warn Doc about his inevitable murder, but Marty’s mere presence in a time before he was even conceived threatens to unravel his friend’s theory of the space-time continuum, and while other movies may have buckled under the burden of logicality, Back to the Future stabilises it with its clever parallels and comical quirks. Marty, the only character in the entire movie who is not plunged into time-altering chaos, alters time in ways that reach beyond the destiny of his family. Not only does he introduce ’50s Hill Valley to one of sci-fi’s most infamous creations, he invents rock ‘n roll music for a generation who will soon thrive on it, leading to one of the most memorable phone calls in all of cinema.
Much of the movie’s humour derives from Zemeckis’ idea of two colliding generations, the gaudy extravagance of the ’80s invading a culture on the verge of liberation, but one still mired in the staunch conservatism of its elders, and one distinctly unprepared for the likes of Marty McFly, whose impromptu Van Halen solo and Walkman-led proclamations about Darth Vader’s brain-melting capacities are both bold and relatable, extravagant yet somehow within the realms of pulp plausibility. But for all its complexity and structural innovations, Back to the Future‘s true strength lies in its sense of creativity, as well as the sweetness that would see the screenplay banished to commercial purgatory for close to a half-decade. It is a memorable adventure with unforgettable characters and performances; the kind of fun and inventive movie you rarely get in today’s pre-packaged, tightly regimented production machine.
All these years later, a film that derived its sense of fun from ’50s nostalgia does the same for an altogether different generation, and if Doc Brown’s DeLorean wasn’t fuelled by plutonium (or indeed general household waste), it would almost certainly be fuelled by nostalgia. Bubble jackets, skateboards and Calvin Klein underwear may have seemed positively futuristic to those citizens of the pre-rock ‘n roll era, but for the movie’s original demographic — those audiences who are now old enough to reminisce about their days growing up in the 1980s — such trends are redolent of a time long ago, a notion that the movie will always continue to champion, even when the events of our generation are but a distant memory.